October 22, 2021

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When Rembrandt Fulfilled an Elephant

5 min read

AMSTERDAM — In Rembrandt’s 1638 etching “Adam and Eve in Paradise,” there are two symbols of fantastic and evil. A dragon hovers above the couple as they contemplate the poison apple, representing the risk of temptation. And in the background, a small, rotund elephant romps in the sunlight, a indicator of chastity and grace. The indicating of these symbols, although obscure right now, would have been recognizable in 17th-century Europe.

The dragon Rembrandt drew was a figment of his creativity. But the elephant appears astonishingly true to existence. How did Rembrandt, who never ever traveled outside the Netherlands, know what an elephant appeared like?

The respond to to this concern arrives in the variety of an exhibition, “Hansken, Rembrandt’s Elephant,” at the Rembrandt Dwelling Museum in Amsterdam. The exhibition, running via Aug. 29, tells the story of a feminine Asian elephant, taken to the Netherlands in the 17th century, who used the rest of her daily life in Europe and became a well known and popular spectacle.

This elephant’s lifestyle has been a unique obsession of the Dutch naturalist and art historian Michiel Roscam Abbing for just about two decades. He printed his to start with trim volume about Hansken in 2006, but continued to lookup for added documentation about her whereabouts and biography for the past 15 years, resulting in a new guide and the Rembrandt Household demonstrate.

What he found out is that Hansken experienced an outsize relevance in art, well-liked leisure and science all through her limited everyday living of about 25 years. She was depicted at least a few periods by Rembrandt she traveled to the Baltics by ship, and by foot all the way up Denmark and down to Italy and she turned the initially Asian elephant to be explained by western science.

“It’s a really tragic story, in fact, but it’s also fascinating,” stated Leonore van Sloten, a curator at the Rembrandt House. “It’s just incredible to feel that there is so considerably facts about one animal.”

“She was introduced to a earth in which she didn’t belong,” van Sloten extra, “but she turned a type of window on to how everyday living was at that time.”

Hansken was born in 1630 on the island of Ceylon, present-working day Sri Lanka. The Dutch East India Corporation was performing business enterprise with the island, and the Netherlands’ ruling governor, Prince Frederick Henry, questioned officers to send him back a youthful elephant as a curiosity.

Elephants ended up a accurate rarity in Europe just before present day moments. “In the 15th century, there was one elephant in Europe,” Roscam Abbing said. “In the 16th century, we know of two or a few elephants, and the similar is true for the 17th century.”

The journey took about seven months, and Hansken arrived in the Netherlands in 1633. Frederick Henry retained her in his royal stables, alongside with other unique animals. But, maybe since of the expenditure and problem of her maintenance, he later on gave her to a relative, Count John Maurice.

She changed fingers at minimum twice far more prior to she was acquired by Cornelis van Groenevelt, an aspiring entertainer, for 20,000 guilders, or the equivalent of about a fifty percent-million pounds nowadays. Hansken used the relaxation of her existence with van Groenevelt, who rode her from city to city as an attraction.

Van Groenevelt taught the elephant tricks — how to have a bucket, lie down, wield a sword and fireplace a gun — that were being depicted in prints by the Swiss artist Jeremias Glaser, and in other drawings and etchings by unidentified artists, sometimes as promotion for her demonstrates.

A single of Hansken’s initial stops was in Amsterdam, in 1637, which is probably the initially time Rembrandt noticed her. He designed a in depth sketch of her that same calendar year, capturing the textures and folds of her pores and skin and the curvature of her trunk. The drawing in all probability served as a study for the afterwards “Adam and Eve” etching.

“He was interested in the animal as these types of, and not in the methods she performed,” Roscam Abbing reported. “These other artists targeted on her capturing a pistol or carrying a bucket with water, but not Rembrandt. He was fascinated in capturing the elephant alone.”

Roscam Abbing was capable to doc Hansken’s arrival in at least 136 towns and cities in Europe she visited Amsterdam 4 instances in the course of her everyday living. Rembrandt may perhaps have noticed her two or 3 of these periods. Close to 1641, he sketched her again, depicting a few variations of her from a number of angles, and in various poses: eating, reclining and going for walks.

Soon after yrs of touring and executing, almost certainly with lousy diet and treatment (for the reason that Europeans understood pretty much nothing about caring for this kind of an animal), Hansken collapsed in the Piazza della Signoria, a significant square in Florence, Italy, on Nov. 9, 1655, around age 25.

Her ultimate moments were being captured in a few drawings by an Italian artist, Stefano della Bella, who transpired to be there.

“It was unclear what happened to her it was at very first believed that she had been poisoned,” van Sloten stated. After a professional medical assessment, it was decided that she experienced died of a fever from an an infection she experienced intense abscesses on her toes.

Van Groenevelt bought Hansken’s entire body to the grand duke of Tuscany, Ferdinando II de’ Medici, who was fascinated in the pure sciences. He experienced her corpse researched thoroughly, and described in scientific literature. The two her skin and skeleton ended up afterwards put on show in the Uffizi Gallery.

The pores and skin deteriorated and was thrown away in the 19th century, but Hansken’s skeleton survives nowadays and is section of the everlasting selection of the Museo della Specola at the University of Florence.

Her skull is on loan to the Rembrandt Household as component of the exhibition.

“There are no bones that you can nevertheless see of any other contemporary of Rembrandt’s, not even the bones of Rembrandt himself,” van Sloten claimed. “So it is an incredible idea that we can stand up coming to her.”

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